Portrait of King James I of England. Son of Mary Stuart.

King James I of England. Baroque era. 17th century clothing
King James I of England

King James I of England (1566–1625).

Son of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots.

James Stuart was as James VI from 1567 King of Scotland, and since 1603 until his death in addition as James I King of England and King of Ireland. He was the driving force of the witch hunts in Scotland as well as later in England, he wrote for this purpose a treatise. He was born on June 19, 1566 as the son of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and her second husband Henry Stewart, Duke of Albany, better known as Lord Darnley, in Edinburgh. He was baptized in Stirling Castle and received the name Charles James. On behalf of Jacob, a translation of the Bible was made in the English language, which first appeared in 1611 and had a profound influence on English literature. As King James Version it is still under English Christians in use.

It was sixteen years after the victory over the Spanish Armada, and nearly eighteen since Mary Queen of Scots had been beheaded at Fotheringay Castle, after that long and severe imprisonment which made her a cripple and marred her great beauty.

Leicester too had paid the penalty of his audacity and his treachery. Essex had perished on the scaffold, a fallen favorite, after a brilliant career as soldier, scholar, and general. Drake, Hawkins, and the great opponents of the Armada, had gone to their rest. Raleigh and Cecil remained with some others in high office; but Elizabeth had outlived most of her early courtiers, and now she too lay dying, an old woman of seventy, who after a reign of forty-five years sat on cushions upon the floor at her palace at Richmond, neither rising nor lying down, her finger almost always in her mouth, her eyes open and fixed on the ground.

On the 21st March, 1603, she was laid in her bed partly by force, and listened earnestly to the prayers of Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury. The most authentic account of the last hours of the great queen says, that on the 22d of March secretary Cecil, with the lord admiral and the lord-keeper, approached and asked her to name her successor. She started and said, “I told you my seat has been the seat of kings; I will have no rascal to succeed me.”

The lords not understanding this dark speech looked one on the other, but at length Cecil boldly asked her what she meant by those words “no rascal?” She replied that a king should succeed her, and who could that be but her cousin of Scotland? They asked her whether this was her absolute resolution? where upon she begged them to trouble her no more Notwithstanding, some hours after, when the Archbishop of Canterbury and other divines had been with her, and left her in a manner speechless, the lords repaired to her again, and Cecil besought her, if she would have the King of Scots to succeed her, she would show a sign unto them. Whereat, suddenly heaving herself up in her bed, she held both her hands joined together over her head in manner of a crown. Then she sank down, fell into a dose, and at three o’clock on the morning of the 24th of March died in a stupor, without any apparent pain of mind or body.

The “dark saying” of Elizabeth is still far from having been explained. In those long cogitations, during which she had her finger in her mouth and her eyes fixed on the floor, her wandering thoughts must have been busy. Not without bitterness could she have contemplated the succession of that son of her enemy and rival, who assuredly she must have regarded as “a rascal” in the sense of his unkingly character and the want of any quality which fitted him to bear rule in England. In duplicity James Stuart was perhaps the equal of Elizabeth herself, in dissimulation he would have been a match for his own mother, as he was a match for English envoys, for Catholic plotters, and for Scottish preachers. But in addition he was altogether mean in conduct, conceited of his crude learning, cowardly and vulgar indisposition, and with a doting and foolish fondness for the favorites of his caprice, which excited the disgust of his court and people, and the contempt and reviling of foreign ambassadors.

Bacon, who was then seeking power and eminence, spoke of the time of Elizabeth’s death as “a fine morning before sun rising,” meaning there by the rising of James; and if the heir to the English throne had possessed the qualifications of a king, the simile would scarcely have been misplaced, for to what a splendid inheritance he was called! The country was powerful’ and feared abroad, and was prosperous at home; agriculture had revived and was in a flourishing condition; trade was vastly extended by the commerce which the great maritime adventurers had opened up in distant parts of the world; the monopolies which had for so long crippled business dealings had for the most part been removed at the urgent demand of parliament; the noble age of literature had progressed, and following the scholars and poets of the time of Henry, Sir Thomas More, Surrey, and the father of Sir Thomas Wyatt, a host of brilliant wits and writers, like Sidney, Raleigh, Spencer, Lord Dorset, and the immortal Shakespeare, had contributed to make the literature of England a national inheritance, independent of Greek and Roman models.

This literature was developed far more during the reign of James, for in the previous half century, though it had been growing in strength and variety of expression, its progress had been delayed by wars and persecutions, and even in the latter portion of the reign of Elizabeth, the punishments which followed assumed detection of plots against the throne and the state, revived the policy of the axe and the block. Indeed these last years of a great period were darkened by the intrigues of men in power, to maintain their influence by implicating their rivals in treasons,which were often as it seems mere snares, invented to entrap dangerous men to deeds for which they might afterwards be tried and condemned to death or long imprisonment.

It should be placed to the account of any estimate of the character of James, that he was born within the shadow of a dark and murderous coalition,— that he was a neglected orphan, never knowing what desperate or unfriendly enterprise might work his ruin,— that he lived ever amidst plots and counter-plots involving the lives of men, and often sustained by treachery, perjury, and bloodshed,—that the stern and fanatical preachers by whom his youth was watched were themselves necessarily associated with men whose authority was sustained by violence and falsehood. Yet learning and literature had advanced in Scotland, and even commerce had been extended by the enterprise of the people, and by their intimate connection with foreign courts.

With scanty produce, and a restrictive legislation which almost prohibited individual enterprise, the trade of the country had greatly increased. The impetus given to shipbuilding by James IV.and his son James V., who was a bold and skillful sailor, had developed commerce and enhanced the comfort of the people, who would probably have made far greater progress but for the turbulent aristocracy who governed them.

The style of living in Scotland was rude and scanty as compared with that of England, so that James on his journey may well have looked forward to his new kingdom as a land of plenty, and may be excused for expressing astonishment at the luxury, order, and refinement of the noblemen’s houses at which he was a guest, and particularly at the palatial and splendid seat of Cecil at Theobalds.

Fynes Moryson, who visited Scotland in 1598, says, ” Myself was at a knight’s house who had many servants to attend him, that brought in his meat with their heads covered with blue caps, the table being more than half furnished with great platters of porridge, each having a little piece of sodden meat, and when the table was served the servants sat down with us; but the upper mess instead of porridge had a pullet, with some prunes in the broth, and I observed no art of cookery, or furniture of household stuff, but rather rude neglect of both, though myself and my companions, sent from the governor of Berwick about Bordering affairs, were entertained after their best manner.”

Describing the general diet of the country he tells us that their bread was chiefly hearth cakes of oats, and in the towns wheaten bread, “which for the most part was bought by courtiers, gentlemen, and the best sort of citizens. The drink of the upper classes was wines sweetened with comfits after the French fashion. There seemed to be no inns, but the citizens brewed ale, which was the common drink for festivity or hospitality. The bed places were built in the wall, with doors to open and shut, in a similar manner to those dormitories which are still occasionally to be seen in cottages in Scotland, but even in country mansions the beds were of straw.

The character of James Stuart has been so admirably depicted by Sir Walter Scott in The Fortunes of Nigel, that it might be sufficient to refer to that inimitable story for an estimate of the manners and disposition of the king.

The great novelist treats his majesty certainly with as much consideration as he appears to have deserved, and refrains from presenting us with a portrait as coarse as that which was drawn by some of the contemporaries of James himself, or which may be obtained by an examination of his own royal records. He was a man of small and mean extremes.

At once a pedant and a conceited dunce, a pretender to learning and wit, and a devourer of flattery which would have been nauseous to any but a person of coarse and depraved taste; a man grossly selfish and unscrupulous, and yet one who lavished on the favorites with whom he was disgustingly familiar, wealth and station which eminent scholars and statesmen might have sought for in vain.

Full of subterfuges, and yet so constantly in dread of plots that he wore a quilted dagger-proof doublet, and revived the torture in order to wring from innocent or unwilling witnesses confessions of what they did not know or were too brave to reveal; a professed peacemaker, who yet was continually making enemies by his want of good faith; a loud professor of religion, who, with low and grovelling propensities and as hifty tyrannous disposition, lowered the whole tone of the court to a dangerous profligacy, and injured the progress of the Reformation and the cause of piety itself by a pretense of discussing matters which he afterwards settled by declaring his divine right to be not only head of the state but head of the church, so that he might at once persecute the Papists whom he feared for their supposed plots,and the Puritans whom he hated because of the rigor with which they had governed him in his youth.

During the early period of his life he had been permitted a show of power, while Scotland was actually ruled by a knot of fierce and unscrupulous conspirators. As King of England he was cajoled and flattered by less fierce and perhaps only a little more scrupulous courtiers in order to gain their own ends, while the men who really guided the state watched each other with a growing suspicion which at last in successive reigns led to the temporary ruin of the country. It took a terrible revolution,the execution of one king, the banishment of another, and the prayer of the people for a foreign governor, to counteract the deadly effects of the Stuart rule in England.

To undo the work of flatterers, favorites, and plotting statesmen, much noble and innocent blood had to be shed, and ultimately both England and Scotland were saved only as by fire. Elizabeth must surely have held James in small estimation. She had at one time sought to have him in safe-keeping in England, and had afterwards, it is thought, been concerned in his being shut up in Ruthven Castle, whence he contrived to be liberated by persuading his keepers into a belief that he was not at all angry at their keeping him in duresse. Whether his pusillanimity and the apparent indifference with which he regarded the imprisonment, and afterwards the execution, of his mother, satisfied Elizabeth that he was her slave, it is not easy to say, but he certainly exhibited scarcely ordinary emotion, and was perhaps quite willing that Mary should be kept captive and suffering in England, that he might occupy the throne.

At the very time that Elizabeth was preparing the commission to try Mary at Fotheringay he told Courcelles, the French ambassador, that he loved his mother as much as nature and duty commanded, but he could not like her conduct, and knew very well that she had no more good-will towards him than towards the Queen of England, adding among other things that he had seen letters in her handwriting which proved her ill-will towards him, and that he knew very well that she had made frequent attempts to appoint a regent in Scotland and deprive him of the throne. This is an illustration of the pettishness, pedantry, and suspicious selfishness of the boy, and the man fulfilled the promise of his youth.

The ambassadors of James at the court of England were creatures of Elizabeth as much as they were his representatives. Courcelles indeed complained that the king of Scotland did not seem to have much heart at any embassy in his mother’s favour, and except on two occasions he appears to have regarded her only as a woman of a different religion who was an obstacle to his own ambition. When he did at last venture to make a more spirited remonstrance, Elizabeth was so enraged that he wrote a humble letter of apology. When the execution was determined on, and James for a little while displayed a more becoming conduct by urging his ambassador, Gray, to spare no pains nor plainness, but to be no longer reserved in dealing for his mother, things might have gone differently but that Gray himself was in the interests of Elizabeth, and was in reality helping Walsingham and Leicester to send Mary to the scaffold.

The former wrote to James expressing surprise that he should interfere to rescue his mother, since as a Protestant prince he ought to feel that her life was inconsistent with the safety of the reformed churches in England and Scotland. James, with a sudden show of dignity, recalled his ambassadors, and that was all, except that he issued an order to the Scottish clergy to remember his mother in their public prayers, and with very few exceptions they refused to pray for an idolater and a Papist.

James was then nearly twenty-one years old. Some weeks after his mother’s execution he received a visit from Sir Robert Carew, who had been sent by Elizabeth to make excuses, to declare that the deed had been done without her knowledge and consent, to assure him of her anxious concern for his welfare, and to express her trust that he would consider every one as his own enemy who endeavored to excite any animosity between them on account of the present accident. After a hysterical outburst and cry for vengeance the royal orphan accepted an increased pension, some deer, and a leash of hounds.

Years afterwards this weak, selfish, and unfeeling man displayed even less emotion at the death of his eldest son, the accomplished Prince Henry, and even hurried away the mourning in order to celebrate a series of court entertainments, balls, and masques, for which under such circumstances he gained the wrath and detestation of the people.

Before the death of Elizabeth he had married the Princess Anne, daughter of the King of Denmark, and when, as soon as Elizabeth had breathed her last, Sir Robert Carew stole out of the palace of Richmond and posted to Scotland with the news, James was ready to set out for England without her, as delays were dangerous. He was too poor to commence his journey till Cecil sent him some money, the council declining to grant his request that the crown jewels might be sent for the queen.

He was full of alacrity to commence the work of ruling the English, though he had held little kingly authority in his own country. During his progress he ordered new coin to be struck, and was anxious to attend the funeral of “the queen defunct,” as he called the late Elizabeth. Cecil and the lords were too sagacious to have him present on that solemn occasion however. It is astonishing that they could have endured his prating folly and vulgar self-assertion, but he gave ample evidence that he meant to make the utmost of prerogative. “Do I make the judges? Do I make the bishops?” he asked. “Then, God’s wounds! I make what likes me law and gospel;” and this he endeavored to carry out to the end of his reign, and would have succeeded, but that the people and the parliament had learned freedom, and he was too much of a coward and liked the throne too well to risk disaffection.

His belief in witchcraft, and the dread of plots against himself, amounted to an unreasonable terror, and was almost as suggestive of his base nature as his captious choice of favorites, and the indifference and even gratuitous injury with which he discarded and then ruined those of whom he had tired, as he discarded the once all-powerful Rochester for the equally infamous but more accomplished Buckingham.

Source: Pictures and Royal Portraits illustrative of English and Scottish History by Thomas Archer. London 1878.

Illustration, Manis, Dasypodidae
Manis Dasypodidae

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